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X Is For Xavier Rubiano

September 13, 2020

Casting director Xavier Rubiano loves attending “Miscast,” the annual concert produced by MCC Theater in which Broadway stars perform songs in roles for which they would never be cast. Eva Noblezada was Hercules last year, for example; Christopher Jackson, who originated the role of George Washington in “Hamilton,” sang a Beyonce song from “Dreamgirls”; Gavin Creel, Andy Karl and Jason Tam were the strippers in “Gypsy.The twentieth edition of “Miscast” will be presented tonight, for the first time online on YouTube and for free.  The lineup was announced long ago (the event was rescheduled three times), but not the songs they will sing. That is always a surprise.

As a kid growing up in Queens who liked to dance and who fell in love with theater when his high school in Astoria gave out free tickets to Broadway shows, Xavier Rubiano says he understood the importance of casting even before he knew exactly what casting meant. He thought Patti LuPone was exactly right as Mrs. Lovett when in high school he saw the 2005 Broadway revival of Sweeney Todd, but she also made the part her own.  Besides injecting the murderer’s accomplice with an unusual sensuality, “she played it very Lady Macbeth and still was able to find humor in the character as well.” Audra McDonald in the 2012 “Porgy and Bess,” Rubiano says, “was a revelation. Have you ever heard a more beautiful soprano while someone is full on ugly crying and acting like she’s on drugs!?”

LuPone and McDonald are two of the 26 people I have profiled over the last six months as part of my Broadway Alphabet series. Xavier Rubiano (“pronounced ZAY-vee-er ROO-bee-A-noh”) is the last in the series (the only one slightly out of alphabetical order.) He is not as well known as most of the previous 25. But he represents the many behind-the-scenes folk who have always made Broadway possible.

As with many of the other people who wind up serving as the backbone of Broadway,  Rubiano intended to become a performer. He enrolled in AMDA, the performing arts conservatory. But “I started to seriously think about casting as a career my freshman year. For my final I wanted to sing “I Am Adolpho” from The Drowsy Chaperone. I had just seen the show and loved it but the vocal selections or the score weren’t available as the show had just opened. My music director in the class said, ‘Why don’t you just call the casting office and see if they’ll give you a copy of the sides and song?’ So, 18 year-old Xavier picked up the phone and called the casting office and they had a copy for me by the afternoon! It was my first time even knowing about a casting office or what they did and so I became obsessed with finding out more.”

His curiosity led to a couple of internships after graduation and what has turned into a decade-long career as a casting professional (Don’t call him a “casting agent.” There’s no such thing, he says.) He now works at Tara Rubin Casting, where one of his shows is “Dear Evan Hansen,” and much of his time has been spent with young actors starting off their careers. He tells them it’s important to be prepared, but it’s equally important to be themselves; it’s no longer necessary to try to fit a mold or type. “When meeting a casting director for the first time, it’s important to be confident and grounded and sure of yourself. I want to see who you are, your energy, your light, and how I can use that for the show I’m currently casting or for something else that someone else is casting in my office.”

Rubiano is aware that, long before Miscast was a popular annual gala, theater aficionados loved to debate the worst casting mistakes in Broadway and Hollywood history.  I showed him a long thread on the subject in a theater chat room

“My general thoughts on miscasting is that it’s so subjective about who’s right and wrong for a role,” he told me. “That thread had a throughline, though, about celebrity casting and I do have to agree that when we start prioritizing a star name over talent, then the show suffers and the actor suffers as well because they have to catch up with everyone around them who are far more experienced in theater.”  It’s a mistake, he believes, to make an offer to somebody without auditioning them, no matter how big a name they are. And even with an audition, it can be a gamble. ” I think most casting directors can defend their choices but I can see some of them having regrets after the fact. An actor can audition and read for a part and be incredible in the room. And then that actor can fall and crumble in the rehearsal room and not succeed in performances.”

The casting director has seen first-hand that there is not one right actor for a role, that different performers can make the character their own — even a character that is deeply identified with the actor who originated the role.

“Replacing Ben Platt was a daunting experience for us in the office and for the production itself. We saw all the best young male performers in the city for this replacement. When Taylor Trensch came in, his audition was so grounded and understated, it really eased everyone’s worry about how Evan Hansen could be different from the last because it was so different and it still worked! Since then we’ve cast over twenty actors (including understudies) across four different companies to play Evan and each one is encouraged to bring their own life experiences to make their Evan Hansen their own and different from Ben’s performance.”

As with every other member of the theater community, casting professionals have been facing unusual challenges during the past six months, a unique period in Broadway history. “At the beginning of the pandemic, there were a lot of auditions happening remotely. We weren’t expecting the shutdown to be this long so we were casting things for fall of this year via self-tapes and Zoom. It was about midsummer that things really slowed down. There’s good and bad with casting remotely. The good is that we can expand our search even further because there are no geographical restrictions about being seen in person but the bad is that we lose that human interaction and the thrill of a live performance in the room. Wifi and computer quality sound can only be so reliable”

The increased visibility since Memorial Day of the Black Lives Matter movement has brought to the fore an issue that Rubiano says he has long championed. “As a Latino casting director, I am always looking to inject any cast with more BIPOC representation knowing firsthand what it’s like to be underrepresented.”  He is a member of the CSA (Casting Society of America) BIPOC Alliance, which is creating training programs, developing partnerships with organizations focused on anti-racism work, and and in other ways offering support “where there wasn’t support before.”

This plays out, for example, in his effort to promote color-conscious casting (rather than colorblind casting), such as in a forthcoming musical adaptation of The Outsiders scheduled for the Goodman Theatre next season. He had conversations with the producers and the creative team about what it would be like for the characters — teenagers in Oklahoma in 1967 — to have been people of color.

“I think the Black Lives Matter movement and the pandemic are giving us all a time of reflection. I’m not sure yet what casting will be like in the future but I know it’ll be very different. The work has just begun, be it onstage or backstage.”


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